Japan from the inside out

Shrines, kabuki, and the policemen’s other hydrangea ball

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, July 9, 2008

SOME STORIES write themselves, and this is one of them.

The Hydrangea Park Commemorative Planting Society in Ogano-machi, Saitama, planted 2,200 hydrangea bushes at the local Oshika Shinto Shrine a few years ago.

Their objective was to create a “a village shrine in a grove” (chinju-no-mori), which is an ancient Japanese concept. Shinto deities are thought to have been originally worshipped in forests, and that’s the reason so many shrines were built in the woods. Shinto shrines surrounded by trees, even in the cities, are still a common sight in Japan today.

Using hydrangea instead of trees is a novel concept. The large bushes are a pleasant and attractive symbol of the hot part of the summer season now that the torrential rains are over, and 2,200 in full bloom in one location must be quite impressive. (Hydrangea are native to East Asia and North and South America, but the most popular ornamental variety in the U.S. came from Japan.)

The Oshika shrine decided to hold a hydrangea festival three years ago, and it’s now part of their calendar every year. Unlike the other festivals we talk about here, it’s not a religious event. Rather, it’s just a nice way to spend some time outdoors in the summer among the flowers.

This year, the shrine decided to stage a kabuki play. They chose the well-known drama, Shiranami Gonin Otoko, or The Five Male Thieves. First performed in 1862 at the Ichimura-za in Tokyo, the main characters are indeed thieves modeled after real people. The protagonist is Nippon Daemon (three syllables, nothing to do with devils), a slight twist on the name of the bandit Nippon Saemon, who was hanged in 1747.

The plot and its twists are quite complex, but two scenes from the drama are famous. In the first, one of the rough-and-ready thieves goes to a kimono shop masquerading as a young woman of the upper class, with the idea of extorting money. Consider the acting skills required to pull off that role convincingly.

In the final scene, Daemon battles two of the thieves, whom we learn are actually undercover policemen, and gets the better of them. He eventually promises to turn himself in later in the day, and the drama ends.

This drama featuring five thieves was performed at the Saitama shrine by seven local policemen, all from the traffic division. They began rehearsals in June at the police station dojo on their own time, assisted by a kabuki preservation society and some junior high school volunteers.

Being policemen, they said they changed the ending slightly to put their fictional brother officers in a better light. They also threw in some cautionary tales about traffic accidents, reckless driving, and telephone swindles.

The word dasai in Japanese denotes a person who is a dweeby, uncool dork. Some years ago, the hyper-cool sophisticated hipsters in Tokyo started adding the first syllable of that word to the name Saitama, where the shrine is located, to refer to the prefecture as Dasaitama. (Everyone around the world knows that all the cool people live in big cities and the hinterlands—everywhere else—are full of geeks.)

But if the cool people happened to have been in Dasaitama last weekend, they could have spent a pleasant day outdoors at a religious institution surrounded by 2,200 hydrangeas in bloom to watch a famous kabuki drama about thieves performed by policemen. Contributing to the success of the event were a volunteer horticultural society, a volunteer kabuki society, and some curious and enthusiastic junior high school kids.

That doesn’t seem dasai to me. In fact, I think it’s kind of cool.

But perhaps it’s as the Japanese say: Tade kuu mushi sukizuki ni. Or in English, some insects even like to eat the tade plant. (It must not be very appetizing.)

More simply put: There’s no accounting for tastes, is there?


Here’s a plot summary in English of Shiranami Gonin Otoko.

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